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My Friends are in Jail

Bebe D’Souza went to Myanmar

first met Phyoe Phyoe Aung at her wedding in January. I watched her politely greet friends, hug ageing relatives and pose for photos under a flower-arch.  She was dressed in an elaborate silver and purple wedding dress. I wasn’t sure when to introduce myself . Did foreign student unionist guests traditionally greet the bride before or after cake? I finally made eye-contact with her. She looked nervous; I was confused. “She’s embarrassed to meet you today”, explained the boy to my right, “she usually dresses more activist”.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung is the 26 year-old General Secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). Two weeks ago she was arrested at a protest against changes to education law in Myanmar. Her arrest has been reported all through major western newspapers. The ABC and the Guardian ran stories on the student protestors. Even Laura and George Bush released a statement expressing their concern for her release. Phyoe Phyoe is my friend and comrade and she’s missing. It seems likely that she’s in jail somewhere near Yangon. But I couldn’t be sure, no one is.

Burmese Student Activism (In Brief)

Any glance through the worlds history books makes plain that radical activism is the lifeblood of social and political upheaval. This activism often takes root in Public Universities; epicentres of critical thought, with enough capital and connections to fascinate the mainstream media. Burma is no exception.

Most of us in the west are familiar with Nobel Prize winner Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Well Aung Sun Suu Kyi comes from a family of student unionists and agitators. Her father Aung Sun, served on the executive of the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU), edited the RUSU’s magazine ‘Ooway’ and was later elected president of the national student union. During his term as president of the RUSU Aung San organised national student strikes and vocally opposed the colonial occupation of Burma by the British and later the Japanese. Indeed, Aung San’s disdain for foreign control over Burmese affairs led to him being dubbed a ‘traitor rebel leader’ by super famous old white dude, Winston Churchill. In sum; Aung San was pretty boss. He founded the Communist Party of Burma, helped drive foreign occupiers from the country, and was good enough with a gun to become Major General of the Burmese Army. He was assassinated at 33.

Modern Activism

Like Aung San, Phyoe-Phyoe Aung and the education activists of the present-day ABFSU are not afraid of speaking truth to power. The four central aims of the ABFSU remain the same in 2015 as they were in 1950; opposing military dictatorship, supporting democratic education, student rights and national reconciliation.

I was lucky enough to visit the offices of the ABFSU on the 8th of January this year. It’s hard to describe the offices except to say they reflected the grittiness of the SRC pre-renovation. The walls were lined with every creed of political text imaginable. There was minimal natural light and the floor was strewn with visiting ABFSU members, who chatted and bantered there after hours. Despite the similarities of the SRC and ABFSU Offices I found myself reflecting on what Australian Student Unionists could learn from the Burmese activists before me.

There was Honey Oo the beautiful and fierce ABFSU Office-Bearer who, along with Phyoe Phyoe and most of the ABFSU members above 25, was arrested in 2007 following Burma’s ‘Saffron Revolution’. Honey Oo described her 2007 arrest to us candidly: “I was hit… hard” she said, slyly referencing the torture she was subjected to in prison, “but he was hit more”, Honey giggled as she motioned to Thiha Win Tin, central committee member of the ABFSU. Honey and Thiha are both in jail again in Burma. They have no access to lawyers, no formal charges and no method of contacting anyone outside their cells.  Despite this harsh reality, in January I laughed awkwardly along with their reflections on being hit by police. Their black humour seemed comforting to me. It reminded me of how I reflect on the police brutality I witnessed at the NTEU pickets at Sydney Uni in 2012 and 2013. You either laugh or you cry I guess.

The younger members of the ABFSU had equally fascinating stories, despite having lived through comparatively less state-sanctioned violence. Yemyo Swe sat across from me on the table next to Myo Htet Zaw. Both were under 18 and spoke English less confidently than the older comrades seated next to them. I could tell Yemyo was the ABFSU’s token ‘commie’ from the moment I laid eyes on him. The cheeky grin on his face and the huge hammer and sickle on his t-shirt really gave it away. A red under the bed, Yemyo cites Ho Chi Minh as a huge influence on his politics and credits his upbringing in subsistence farming as ‘show[ing]’ him to his ‘political senses’.  Yemyo was terrifying confident in his politics. I was sold, I bought myself a ‘students, workers and farmers unite and fight’ shirt to match Yemyo’s the next day.

The National Education Law

Honey Oo, Phyoe Phyoe and the other hundred or so student protesters arrested on the 3rd of March put their bodies on the line to defeat the National Education Law (NEL) which was approved by Burmese parliament at the end of 2014. The NEL is bad news for students. Like deregulation here in Australia, it threatens the accessibility of education for those with less money. Section 17 only safeguards free primary education, however it remains silent on the secondary education. Yemyo summarized his opposition to the law by explaining that  “we don’t want… our sisters and brothers” to get “the poor education”.

The NEL also presents a threat to student organising more broadly, posing a greater threat to student unions than Compulsory Student Unionism did in Australia in 2006.  It guts them of the ability to organise autonomously. But unlike VSU it isn’t monetary compensation that’s under threat, its the ability to associate at all.

The NEL is also bad news for a secular and non-discriminatory education system. The NEL centralizes control of the curriculum under Chapter X1 Subsection 57(a) of the law. In a similar vein to the assimilationist policies of the ‘White Australia Era’ this subsection prevents regional schools from teaching and learning in their mother-tongue. Additionally, section four subsection (m) of the National Education Law will give organised religion in Burma more control over the curriculum, like the National School Chaplaincy program could do here in Australia if it were mandated in every school and every student had to attend.

But what do I do?

Everytime I speak about my time with the students of the ABFSU with my Australian colleagues their faces seem to glaze over in gentle reverence. How exotic and engaging are the lives of these Burmese education activists? This makes me frustrated. While their curiosity is well meaning and endearing I can’t help but feel a sense of loss for the struggles that exist around us in Australia that aren’t as ‘glamorous’ as those overseas. Why can’t the deaths of refugees on Manus Island, or the forced removal of Aboriginal Children from their families or the pepper-spraying of student protesters invoke the same emotive response? The same desire to assist? After all, I was only able to relate to the students of the ABFSU precisely because of my background in Australian political struggles. Indeed, I have more of an obligation to those struggles because I profit off the dispossession of Aboriginals from their land every day. I’ll never forget when Anarcho Syndicalist Thit Myat turned to me at Phyoe Phyoe’s wedding as he asked me curiously  “Do you chant ‘we are students not customers’ in Australia?”  I turned to him and nodded, laughing. “Pretty much.”

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